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I asked him a few questions about his feats of the other day.
"What happens to the snakes you catch, Sheikh Moussa?"
"I keep them until they die. I am forbidden to kill them, as then I would lose my power over them."
"But, in that case, you must have a whole Zoological Gardens snake section in your house 1" I exclaimed.
He laughed,
"Oh, nol I catch three kinds of snakes. The small ones fight with the scorpions in my baskets and are generally killed. As it is the scorpions who do the killing, I receive no blame 1*'
I thought this an extremely specious kind of logic and wondered whether or not it would appeal to the avenging angel of the serpent kingdom.
Moussa explained that he could not take the trouble and responsibility of letting the snakes loose again; moreover, once he let them go, they would never return. Nevertheless, there were a few cases where he let snakes loose in the desert.
"Within three or four days, the bad snakes who are wicked and bad-tempered usually turn round in their fury and bite themselves and so commit suicide. The good snakes who are large, I let die a natural death from starvation. So in neither of these two cases do I kill them."
"What is the power whereby you charm the snakes to come out of their holes? Is it a kind of hypnotism?"
"Not exactly. By the honour of Islam, I can only say that it is a power which is passed down from master to disciple at initiation. To utter the invocations alone will not be sufficient to conquer the snakes. The talismans, prayers and commands are all necessary and great helps, as is also the secret invocation which is communicated to the disciple for mental use only, but the principal power to chatm the snakes comes from this force which is given over to the pupil by his teacher. Just as a new clergyman in the Christian Church is supposed to receive a ceitain grace when the bishop lays his hands upon his head in the ceremony of appointment, so the disciple receives the power over snakes which is invisibly passed into him. It is this force which really enables him to control the snakes."
Then the Sheikh told me that he was really a member of a certain Dervish order which specialized in the handling of venomous serpents, and that this order was the only real tribe of magicians using mystic powers to control snakes. These Dervishes had been numerous in Egypt up to a century or so